Thursday, 11 October 2018

Village Life

Coven Athletic  1  Cannock United  3

Staffordshire County Senior League – Division Two

Being raised in a small village, I spent many of my formative years sheltered from the real World!

No sooner had I turned up for my first day at the semi-borstal that was Mortimer Wilson Comprehensive School, did I start to realise just how lucky, and possibly even how naïve I’d been.

These kids were different, for a start, they seemed to be let out after dark and they understood the basic concepts of survival in a working class town. Arguing, fighting, haranguing the opposite sex, loitering, even minor criminal acts were part and parcel of daily life.

But, they couldn’t recite their twelve times table, and I could, so it gave me comfort that I might just have enough to survive the five year rat-race, and assuming I got out of the other end, I stood half a chance of a life without penal incarceration.

You see, living in a small village was great, you knew everyone, everyone knew you. You could walk everywhere, you could get home nice and easily, before it got dark. You also couldn’t get into trouble, because everyone knew you, and unquestionably your parents WOULD find out everything you’d been up to.

We played football, we rode bikes, we played on our Sinclair ZX Spectrum’s and in the Summer we’d go down the woods and make dens. How Famous Five it all was, ‘Woof’ said Timmy. Lashings of Ginger Beer all round, with cream cakes for dessert!

There are some villages through the passage of time, that actually end up becoming small towns, rather sadly in my view. The price of progress and housing demands has seen the large developer win the battle of wills with the authorities, and green land subsequently turns to homes. I’ve seen this locally with places like South Normanton and Hilton, and what were once small village communities have become almost unrecognisable.

However, I don’t ever recall a town being ‘downgraded’ to a village before, but when I did my research on Coven Athletic, who were new to the Staffordshire County Senior League, I came across something very unusual.

My first discovery was that they played in a place called Brewood, which was located in South Staffordshire, not far from the Shropshire border, effectively to the North West of Wolverhampton. 

That rang a bell because I could recall a team playing in the West Midlands Regional League in the Eighties called Brewood, and so it transpires, Coven were going to be playing at the same ground.

But Brewood itself is unusual because it was once a town, but not anymore it transpires. It was reconstituted as a village in the early twentieth century as the population fell due to a migration to the major centres such as Wolverhampton and Stafford. But, soon after its status changed, the village grew again, and now with its population at almost 8,000, the highest it’s ever been, it remains a village.

Having had some very helpful Twitter chatter with Coven on the day of the game, I made my way to the ground and parked up, while having taken the advice as to suitable hostelries, I was soon at home in the ‘village’ centre with pint in hand.

Brewood is a nice place, much bigger than the village I grew up in, but a very welcoming and attractive place all the same. The ground itself sat right on the outskirts of the village and after driving down a short track you find a car park with a dressing room building to the side. Two pitches adorn the complex, with a further cricket field and pavilion in the distance.

It had a lovely rural feel about, and other than the two dugouts, the lack of any football furniture seemed to suit the location. Stands and floodlights might appease the ground graders, but from an aesthetic point of view, it’s not what Brewood needs or indeed wants.

As for the game, well Coven lost 3-1 to neighbours Cannock United, but to be fair, and I did make the comment to them afterwards, they did deserve at least a point, and probably more. Cannock took the lead early in the game but the hosts saw plenty of the ball, and indeed hit the woodwork on at least two occasions.

A second goal followed but then Coven scored with a header to get themselves back into the game. Despite more pressure and more chances, the decisive fourth goal in the game went to Cannock and this deflated Coven who in my opinion deserved more from the encounter.

The result saw Cannock maintain second position in the table, while Coven sit just below the half way mark, with two wins from their five games.

The journey back took just around an hour, down the A5, up the A38, and as always, it gave me a bit of reflection time. I got thinking about the village where I grew up and the fact that I could look out of my bedroom window across the valley, and in the distance on the horizon was that town that came as such a culture shock to me.

The irony now is, if you look out of the very same window, you can’t see the town any more, you can see an estate of new houses that have been erected over the past eighteen months, despite loud protests from local residents.

Village life is evolving everywhere you look, the local shop, the local pub, the post office, are all disappearing as the urban centres draw us ever closer. Villages like Brewood, with clubs like Coven Athletic, the pubs and the café’s, are getting fewer, and that’s a real shame, the price of progress is a heavy one in my opinion.

Town's becoming villages, that's not a trend I expect to see happening readily, Brewood clearly bucked that trend several generations ago. They may well one day have a fight on their hands from stopping it going back the other way.

Saturday, 6 October 2018


Buxton  2  South Shields  0

Northern Premier League – Premier Division

I’ve only ever been ejected from two football grounds.

One of those instances was a real schoolboy error (pardon the pun) at Wolverhampton Wanderers when I went through the junior entrance only for a Police search to find my car keys on me. I tried the plead the student line but it was to no avail, they put me in a holding cell at the back of the ground, took some photographs, completed some paperwork and then out I went. I was allowed back in, but this time at full price. Apparently, if ever found guilty of a football related offence again in the West Midlands I will receive a lengthy ban, so to be honest I’ve always been ultra-careful since, especially when going to places like Gornal Athletic and Cradley Town where the temptation to go bat-shit crazy can be overwhelming at times!

The other instance actually came after the final whistle, allow me to tell the story!

It was the end of the 1985-86 season and Belper Town had reached the Derbyshire Senior Cup Final, it was to be a two legged affair, and in that era the Senior Cup did actually matter, so we had a double decker bus to take us to the game. Myself and my Dad were collected at the Hurt Arms in Ambergate, and with many of the bus residents having had a good gargle back in Belper before setting off, it was a merry old journey up the Via Gellia.

We arrived in Buxton, and I went straight into the ground, but a good number went into Buxton, and it wasn’t long before reports were coming back of aggro in the town, so consequently the home officials and stewards were on their guard as us Belper louts needed to be watched closely.

I don’t remember an awful lot about the game, but I can remember a fair bit of taunting going back and forth in the big main stand as the two sets of fans goaded each other. At the final whistle, after a game that I seem to recall ended 2-2, the crowd dispersed, and with our battle wagon not due to depart until half an hour after the final whistle so the committee could make the most of the post match hospitality, a few of us decided to have a charge around the terraces.

It was at the point where I think we might have been in the process of considering what souvenirs to take home with us (parts of the ground), that we felt the long arm of the local stewards. Within seconds we were being frog marched to the exits and placed back on the Trent bus. Technically not an ejection I guess, more of a hastened departure, but all the same, it was my first instance of forced removal from a football ground.

It didn’t put me off, I’ve been to the Silverlands numerous times since. We actually played them again the following season in another Senior Cup Final, this time without the drama, while I can also remember going with Alfreton for a pre-season friendly after a hefty drinking session in the Hope Valley, that day, did not end well. I won’t elaborate, but sometimes in hindsight you are quite rightly ashamed of yourself!

I can remember being at another Derbyshire Senior Cup tie against Ilkeston Town, when the game was played in incessant rain. It finished all square at the final whistle, by which time the rain had abated. With extra-time due, the referee, Mr Shoebridge from Ripley, decided to abandon the game to everyone’s amazement. The pitch was perfectly playable so it made no sense. This caused a problem though, because the 90 minutes had been played the game was to be replayed at Ilkeston, but the weather took a turn for the worse and it was a real job to actually get the game played. Future rounds were significantly delayed as a result.

I’ll be honest though, as much as I love going to the Silverlands, I’ve always been super cautious due to the fact it suffers from the extremes of the weather. Snow can arrive when it’s sunny elsewhere, you can have a frozen pitch when it’s mild just down the round, and my mate Steve has on at least three occasions been sat in the bar when the game has been called off, albeit once due to a somewhat bizarre and controversial incident involving Buxton’s player being caught in horrendous traffic (Morrisons Car Park down the road it transpired!) prior to another Senior Cup tie against Alfreton.

But that’s all in the past now, because Buxton have installed an artificial pitch, so unless we have a pile of snow, it’s happy days. But, I had picked a game out as soon as the fixtures were announced, with my old favourites South Shields in town for a midweek game, it was straight into the planner and barring a freakish weather incident that would even surpass Buxton standards, I was going!

Why do I love the Silverlands? Because it’s a proper traditional football ground, that’s why. A cracking old stand with the dressing rooms and offices below dominates the vista, while behind the railway line end is a steep covered terrace where a great atmosphere can be created. Opposite the main stand is the popular side which is a full length covered terrace, while behind the other goal it’s just open. The clubhouse and tea bar are just as you enter the ground in the corner, and over the years the warmth of that clubhouse at half time has been a godsend!

What about the club?

A Cheshire County League side until 1973 when they were crowned Champions and won promotion to the Northern Premier League, they went on to become one of the mainstays of the premier non-league competition in the North, remembering that up until 1979, the winners of the NPL could apply for election to the Football League.

They never really threatened in the NPL but once the top sides moved into the newly formed Alliance Premier League in 1979, they did conjure up sixth and fourth placed finishes for a couple of seasons afterwards. They continued to tick along, without really threatening, until 1996-97 when a disastrous campaign saw them finish bottom and relegated. Financial problems hit the club and once again the following season they finished bottom of the First Division and were relegated to the Northern Counties East League.

Despite being without doubt the biggest club in the league, they didn’t find life easy in the NCEL. Twice they had to survive relegation scares and in the end it took eight seasons before they were crowned champions and were able to return to NPL football. In fact, it was once Nicky Law was appointed Manager that fortunes changed. He was the man who took them up, and then the following season they won the NPL1 at the first attempt, and finally, they were back where they belonged.

Since then they’ve flirted with the Play-Offs on a couple of occasions, but in all honesty, they’ve never really looked like going up, nor have they ever been in any danger of going down. Arguably, they are now at their natural level as a football club, but that said, the National League North is still something to aim for, they certainly have the facilities and the support in the town is strong, so why not?

The current campaign has started positively, prior to the match against South Shields they were just outside the top six, and if they could muster up a victory, a top four place with a quarter of the season gone was within grasp. Crowds have been good as well, the highest being over 700 while an average of just under 500 is very healthy for the level.

So what about the game? I had a feeling beforehand that South Shields would have too much for them, despite them not perhaps having had the start that would have hoped for and indeed expected. Bearing in mind this is the club that have stormed all before them in the previous three seasons, and in many pundits eyes, were the favourites again this time around. I was one of them, I felt that they would go through the league this season (having seen them last year) and would be taking up a place in National North for 2019-20.

Buxton had different ideas, they played a high tempo game and pressed the ball quickly. Shields had plenty of possession but more often than not the ball was going sideways or backwards such was Buxton’s tenacious attitude. Buxton took the lead in the seventh minute when the impressive Liam Hardy saw his shot from distance take a deflection and find its way into the back of the net.

Shields saw plenty of the ball for the rest of the first half, but could only real manufacture one decent chance that went begging.

I had a feeling that Shields would go up another gear in the second period and perhaps try to be a bit more direct, but it was quite the opposite. Buxton were the side they found another gear and started to see more of the ball, so it came as no surprise when in the 78th minute Greg Young found space in the penalty area to turn and fire low into the net.

A well deserved victory for Buxton, and disappointment for the healthy following from the North East who seemed somewhat disgruntled at the final whistle. They aren’t used to losing games, and this was the fourth away defeat from six games on the road.

But tonight was about Buxton, and under the guidance of Paul Phillips and Steve Halford, you do wonder whether this might be the season when they could mount that elusive promotion push. They’ve beaten Shields and another favourite in the shape of Basford United, so why not?

With a guarantee of games due to the shiny new surface, I’ll be back again this season, and being that bit older and slightly more sensible, I promise you Buxton, I won’t be causing you any trouble!

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

In God's Country

Ryburn United  3  TVR United  0

West Riding County Amateur League – Premier Division

I do love a trip to West Yorkshire.

Over the years I’ve been to some stunningly picturesque venues while watching football, highlights include Oxenhope and the breathtaking views over the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, Salts and the evocative Saltaire Village, Esholt and Emmerdale Country, and of course the ghostly mills of Marsden.

And Why Not.....?
The West Riding County Amateur never failed to disappoint as year in, year out, new teams would appear and new venues would be visited. It was that league that then set me onto the West Yorkshire League for what were some equally fabulous trips to some wonderful places.

Things are changing though, in 2010-11 season the WRCAL had four division with a membership of 54 teams. At the start of this season it was down to one division with 15 teams, but since then Wakefield City, AFC Bingley and DRAM Community have all resigned, it’s down to 12 teams.

Many knowledgeable locals are suggesting this could the final season for the league, with the clubs either choosing to go into the West Yorkshire League or the West Yorkshire Amateur League. It certainly has the look of a league on its way out, especially after a proposed merger with the West Yorkshire League fell through in the Summer.

That said though, it has persevered with its recruitment and in the Summer new teams in the shape of AFC Bingley, Toller and Ryburn United joined the fold, but of course Bingley quickly disappeared again. Toller, for that matter, did disappear before the season started, but they suddenly re-appeared again, and so far all looks good.

Halifax Road Side
Ryburn United though, a side from the Halifax League who finished runners up to Shelf United last season, despite winning 16 of their 20 games, looked to be one of the more competitive recruits, and competing out of their own base at Ripponden Wood, it was on the radar for a visit.

It’s taken a bit of time though as for the first month or so they didn’t play at Ripponden Wood due to some work taking place on the ground, but having been in a dialogue with their Twitter Guy, I got the affirmative that the game against Bradford based TVR United would indeed be at ‘home’.

Getting to the village of Ripponden is pretty straight forward, and once off the M62 at Ainley Top, as you would expect, it’s a very picturesque run out of Elland, into Greetland and then down into the valley where it sits. Located only twelve miles from Rochdale, Ripponden is very much a Yorkshire village, but being so close to the Greater Manchester boundary it does have close links.

The River Ryburn (hence the clubs name) runs through the village which has a population of around 8,000, while it was famous for being on the route for the Tour de France in 2014 when it passed through before climbing the 1.3 kilometre long Cote de Ripponden.  Other than that, it has pubs and the like, and like many of these Yorkshire villages and towns, it does make me wonder how they cope when the snow comes!

The ground is located to the North of the village, on the main Halifax Road, and once down the narrow driveway, a car park and dressing room building appears on the right. Adjacent to the building is a storage container that’s been converted into a handy tea bar selling pies and other such delicacies.

Two sides of the ground are overlooked by the stunning views of the woodland that slopes up the side of the valley, while on the main road side is a steep wall that runs close to the edge of the pitch, which in itself provided a great viewing location for some of the spectators.

Dressing Rooms
The pitch was in good nick and to comply with regulations a ‘Respect’ barrier was erected down one side. Overall, a lovely venue that the club have worked hard on to give some basic creature comforts for players and spectators alike.

The game was due to kick off at 2.30pm but TVR were in no rush so it was 2.45pm by the time it actually happened, and that laissez faire attitude transmitted onto the pitch where they were comfortably beaten by a well drilled and determined Ryburn outfit.

The final score was 3-0 and that was probably a fair reflection of the balance of play, which saw the hosts jump over the visitors in the league table into fifth position. Quality wise it was of a good standard, but it does beg the question as to where clubs like Ryburn United might sit as regards next season.

If the WRCAL is no longer viable, and the future may not be clear until very late in the day, then decisions will need to be made early by clubs who want to secure a league for 2019-20. It may be that process which ultimately is the death of the WRCAL, unless of course the FA Leagues people get involved, in which case the outcome is anyone’s guess.

For the time being though, give me God's Country any day of the week……

The Wall

Sunday, 30 September 2018

The Balance

Carlton Town  5  Gresley  0

Northern Premier League – Division One East

The balance of power in Nottinghamshire non-league football has swung significantly over the past decade.

The top non-league club in the county is Basford United, followed by Carlton Town and then AFC Mansfield. To put that into some kind of perspective, it wasn’t too long ago that Basford were a Nottinghamshire Senior League side, Carlton, while under the previous name of Sneinton were also in that competition, while AFC Mansfield haven’t been formed that long!

The previous big players, namely Worksop Town, Eastwood Town, Arnold Town and Hucknall Town, are at Step’s 5, 6 and 7, their demise due to a variety of factors, cash being a significant one.

But let’s focus on Carlton Town, a club I first saw play back in 2003 at their old ground, which sat right next to where the current ground sits on Stoke Lane. It was a pre-season friendly against Holbrook Miners Welfare, and at the time plans were in place to run the new Colwick Loop Road right through the ground, which would mean the club would have to move slightly to the West at a virtual right angle to where they played. They already owned the land and had a pitch in place, so it was deemed to be one of the simpler ground moves in the grand scheme of things.

The move took place in the 2006-07 and I saw what I think was the first home game under lights when they lost 1-0 to Hallam. Much debate amongst the travelling fraternity concerned pitch overlaps, you see that’s quite a big thing as any slight overlap of pitches means it isn’t a new ground.

Spurs are currently featuring in such debate, but you only have to go on the Google Earth timeline to work it out, and besides, how anyone can suggest the Tottenham ground is not a new stadium is talking cobblers .

Digression aside, the new home was indeed a new ground, and it coincided with the rise of a club that as I have said, were once called Sneinton and competed in the lower division of the Notts Senior League. They moved up to the top flight of the NSL and then made the jump into the Central Midlands League, winning the Supreme Division in 2002-03 season.

It only took two seasons of Northern Counties East League football before the First Division title was won, and then the following season a third place in the Premier Division meant promotion to the Northern Premier League thanks to some restructuring.

All of this took place under the Chairmanship of Mick Garton and the shrewd management of Tommy Brookbanks, two men who have been fundamental to the rise of a club that still to this day struggles to draw larger crowds to Stoke Lane despite the significant progress that has been made.

The club achieved a best place of runners up in Division One South in 2011-12, losing to Leek Town on penalties in the play-offs, this of course came after a play-off defeat to a Jamie Vardy inspired Stocksbridge Park Steel in the 2008-09. An era that was undoubtedly the best in the clubs history, with the County Senior Cup finding its way into the trophy cabinet on more than one occasion.

Recent years have been a little lean on the pitch, Brookbanks moved on, and further managers have come and gone, but the club remains at Step 4 despite the last four years finishing in the bottom four consistently.

On a night when Nottingham Forest were at home to Stoke City, it perhaps wasn’t the smartest move to drive right past the City Ground en route to Stoke Lane, but anyway, it was achieved without too much discomfort and soon the A612 was negotiated and the car park found with ease.

The ground hasn’t changed much over the years, once through the turnstiles, the tea bar and dressing rooms are to the left, with an area of covering overhanging at the front. To the right is the clubhouse, with a further building beyond it that looks like its being converted into possibly an academic facility.

The only other area of cover at the ground sits behind the South goal and that is a small block of Atcost style seats, behind which is a floodlit all weather court.

As for the game, it was something of a procession. In front of 106 spectators, Luke Smithson gave the hosts a tenth minute lead, while Ben Hutchinson doubled it in the 24th minute. It was 3-0 by half time when Riece Bartram found the net in the 36th minute.

Oliver Clark made it 4-0 ten minutes into the second period and then as the game moved into the final five minutes, the same player made it 5-0. It was a comprehensive victory and a very good performance from Carlton who’s pace and trickery was just too much for a very lacklustre Gresley outfit.

It was Carlton’s first home win of the season and moved them towards the mid-table places, while Gresley’s poor away form continues. I’m sure Carlton would accept mid-table from this season, it would give them something to build on, and with some impressive looking youngsters in the side, they’ve certainly got the makings of a good side.

The balance of power will undoubtedly shift again in Nottinghamshire at some point in the future, Carlton Town will be hoping that they can remain a consistent in what seems to be a very changing football World.

Friday, 28 September 2018


Waltham Abbey  3  Hanwell Town  2

Isthmian League Division One (South Central)

I’ve never come across a football club that’s had a pet before!

I do remember Goldenhill Wanderers in the Staffordshire County Senior League having a fox that used to visit the pitch pre-match and do a spot of sun bathing in the goalmouth, but other than that, I don’t recall any domestic animals forming part of the fabric of a football club.

The Pussy
Until now that is, you see I was minding my own business while waiting to be served in Waltham Abbey’s clubhouse when a cat leapt up onto the bar next to me, and seemed quite happy to watch my pint being pulled. No one in the vicinity of the bar seemed to bat an eyelid, so I asked the obvious, and probably quite stupid, question.

“Is the cat yours?”

The reply was pretty succinct.

“It’s a stray, but it lives here, so we’ve adopted it, so yes, I suppose it is ours.”

And that was kind of it, I enquired as to how it got fed, only to find it was pretty much crisps and mini-cheddars, while it did prefer lager to bitter, so clearly it was a cat of very good taste.

A few minutes after sitting down, the cat, who’s name I failed to enquire about, decided it liked me, so over it trotted and up onto my coat it leapt. I had a friend, but it wasn’t overly talkative, it fell asleep.

So how did I end up at Waltham Abbey on a Tuesday night? It was another work related manoeuvre, and being based in Milton Keynes again for a couple of days meant I was within striking distance of the M25, so lots of options were available. Waltham Abbey quite simply was the nearest unvisited venue, so, I decided to pay them a visit.

Situated right at the side of the M25, not far to the East of the A1 is the Essex town of Waltham Abbey. The ground, known as Capershotts, is accessed from the exit farthest from the town heading clockwise, and then back alongside the motorway before crossing it. Just as you pass the sign to say you are in the town, the ground appears on the right hand side.

Located down a driveway, a large car park opens out in front of you, with the social club set on the farthest edge away from the ground itself. After acquainting myself with the cat, it was soon time to go and have a look at the facilities, and I must say I liked what I found.

Entering through the turnstiles in the corner, a tea bar sits to the left, while to the right is a seated stand that straddles the half way line. The stand is of a more traditional construction than many we see nowadays, and painted to the rear in the club colours of green and white, the letters WAFC can be picked out on the wall.

The only other cover sits behind the car park goal, with two areas of terracing sitting side by side. One a sturdy brick built variety, while the other was somewhat more reliant on scaffolding poles.

The rest of the ground is open standing, and while the pitch was in fine nick, it did seem that it once had a sideways slope on it judging  by the angles of the fences and the perimeter. All in all, a very tidy facility, and on the night, 101 paid to watch the game.

Green Baize
Waltham Abbey’s more recent history starts with a spell in the old London Spartan League in the late seventies, right through to the early noughties when their record was expunged prior to the season finishing.

They regrouped and joined the London Intermediate League the following season, but after just one season they joined the Essex Senior League.  They remained in Essex until 2006 when a second place finish saw them promoted to the Isthmian League, where they have remained at Step 4, bar one season in 2009-10 when they were in the Premier Division, only to be relegated again.

They haven’t won a championship since the Spartan League in 1979-80, but, this could be the year? Before the game they sat in second place, having won five and lost just one of their opening six games. Visitors Hanwell Town sat in mid-table, so it promised to be an intriguing game.

Where Scaffold Meets Brick
What a game it was too, a real bobby dazzler, one that swung one way and another, and then finished with a bit of argy bargy!

Harvey Killeen gave Hanwell the lead after a series of corners on the half hour mark, having looked much the stronger side in the opening stages. But within eight minutes Ellis Brown had found an equaliser for the hosts when he poked the ball into an empty net from a cross. Just after the break though, it was the visitors who restored the lead when Tom Collins rifled the ball home.

This was the catalyst for Waltham Abbey to go up another gear, they equalised when Dan Aristidou slotted home from a through ball just before the hour mark. And then only five minutes later and it was turned on its head when Ronnie Winn shot low from the edge of the box to make it 3-2.

Abbey tried to play out the closing stages in the corner flag only for frustrations to boil over when a Hanwell player decided to go down the bag of an opponents leg, which in turn left him in considerable pain. This caused the obligatory handbags, but after much consultation between the three officials, nothing was done, and the final whistle was blown almost instantly when the free kick was taken.

Seats From Maine Road Apparently
It was a hard fought but deserved victory for Abbey who look a very good side to me. Can they keep it up? I hope so, because they do give you the impression of a well run club with some hard working officials, in a part of the Country where football fans have a lot of options, so support is limited and always will be.

The getaway was quick, and that meant last orders was made in Milton Keynes with considerable ease. It was an especially comfortable and enjoyable journey back given that it was accompanied by the commentary of Derby’s fantastic penalty shoot-out victory at Old Trafford.

I bet the cat enjoyed watching that in the bar at Capershotts…..

Thursday, 27 September 2018

The Gift

Knockbreda  3  Loughgall  2

Northern Ireland Championship

As the sun broke through the gap in the curtains of the Mourne Country Hotel in Newry, and I gradually came to my senses, the realisation that another Northern Irish venture was upon me hastened the desire to make a move.

But not before a few minutes of reflection on the day before, a superb day that took in so much of the history of this fantastic place. A few minutes was enough though, I could smell bacon!

The bus from Newry to Belfast was quiet, or at least it was until the latest incarnation of nineties girl band B’Witched got on board and the peace was shattered. I had picked the seat next to the back row, purely because the emergency door meant more leg room, but when they decided to take up the back seat, my peaceful dozing came to an abrupt end. Hollister deals for all at TK Maxx apparently?

Primark - Gorn!
Once in Belfast I took a steady walk past the superb City Hall, took a look at the burned out Primark building, before heading into the Cathedral Quarter, mainly because I had a specific destination in mind, the Duke of York.

Now then, there are boozers, and then there’s this place. If you like sports memorabilia, football in particular, then trust me, you’ll be in porn heaven. Almost every square inch of the walls and the ceilings is taken up by remnants, artefacts, programmes, posters, the lot. To see old Belfast Celtic programmes alongside Distillery programmes from European ties is fantastic, just as it is to see a greyhound racing card from West Ham Stadium dating back to the thirties. You could spend an age snooping around a pub that features on the Belfast tourist trail, but at some point it’s courteous to buy a drink.

The Grand Old Duke
After a wee drink it was time to head to another iconic tavern, Bittles, which is just a few minutes away. This place is much smaller, however it’s equally decorated, but more in a socio-political sense. The artwork is fantastic, with Messrs Adams, McGuinness and Paisley heavily featured, but also sitting alongside the likes of Georgie Best and Alex Higgins. A wonderful little place.

The drinking and gazing couldn’t last forever as the Laganside Bus Station beckoned for the wagon that would take me out into the Country to the general proximity of Breda Park, the home of Knockbreda Football Club.

The bus travels through the Republican Short Strand area before crossing the interface onto the edges of the Newtownards Road territory. It then heads in a South Easterly direction through Castlereagh, before climbing up the hill into what is effectively countryside. I got off the bus at the junction of Braniel Road, and made my way along the narrow road with no pavements for about a quarter of a mile before I found Breda Park. At this stage you are quite high up, and the views to the North across Belfast and the docks are very impressive indeed.

Knockbreda FC have been around since 1947, playing for over forty years in the Churches League, but then in 1989 they joined the Northern Amateur League. Twenty years later, having located to and developed the current ground, they were admitted to the Northern Irish Championship Two, where they lasted for four seasons before promotion to Championship One, where they remain.

Life hasn’t exactly been a struggle either in the second tier of Irish football, they’ve flirted on the edges of the promotion race, and have been one of the stringer teams in the competition on a consistent basis.  They also play in yellow and black, the very same colours as NAC Breda from the Netherlands, is there a connection, I have no idea?

Not NAC Breda
The ground at Breda Park has been developed over the years, and despite its isolated location, it does have a feeling of being something of a community hub. A very large car park slopes down from the main road, and to the right is a floodlit 4G playing surface in a cage. Directly in front is a two story clubhouse and dressing room complex, with the turnstiles to its right hand side.

The main pitch is down a slope from the clubhouse, and from a furniture point of view the only spectator accommodation is a modern seated stand that straddles the halfway line on the East side of the ground. Hard standing is available for the large part, but the ground has no floodlights. To get promotion to the top flight would be a huge ask at the current ground, I suspect.

Visiting Loughgall, who I paid a visit to back in April, sat next to bottom in the table while the hosts were just above the half way mark. After a couple more pints in the clubhouse, where the locals were very friendly I must add, it was time to go and have a look at proceedings.

Eight pounds will see you in, assuming you don’t want to watch it from the seats by the windows in the clubhouse that overlooks the pitch, but I suspect you need to arrive early for those prime spots. I was too late an hour before kick off!

So what about the game? After a pretty even first half in front of a crowd of maybe 100, it was the visitors who took the lead just after the half hour mark  when Andrew Hoey fired low into the net.

Fields & Stuff
It looked in the bag for Loughgall ten minutes into the second period when a penalty was awarded and up stepped Hoey to make it 2-0, but the game was about to be turned on it’s head.

Jordan Baker tapped the ball home in the 67th minute, and then within five minutes the substitute had found the net for the equaliser. It wasn’t over yet though.

With just under fifteen minutes remaining, fellow substitute David Fearon finished well following a flick from Baker to make the comeback complete. It had been a tremendous turnaround and the lads in the viewing gallery were banging on the glass in appreciation.

The tricky road was successfully navigated after the game and a bus was caught back into the centre of Belfast. A quiet evening was enjoyed on the back of a good old Spoons meal deal, with plenty of time to reflect on what had gone before over the two days.

The next trip will be in the Spring, the planning and thought process will start long before that, so much to see and so much to do, the land that just keeps on giving.


Monday, 24 September 2018

XMG & The Mourne Ultimatum

Newry City  1  Warrenpoint Town  1

Northern Ireland Premiership

Crossmaglen was the posting that filled every British soldier with dread.

During the Troubles, the small border town and unofficial capital of South Armagh was a base for the military, chosen largely due to the fact that the South Armagh Brigade of the IRA was the most fearsome of them all, reportedly at the centre of every major plot and campaign, they needed to be both watched and ideally eliminated.

It was far from simple though, this was a highly skilled, technologically advanced and motivated organisation. A Captain within the Parachute Regiment said of South Armagh in a memoir…

“I got the feeling of being one of those shooting gallery targets that go round on a conveyor belt, endlessly waiting for someone to knock you down. South Armagh, still light years away from civilisation, still living in the dark ages, where barbarity and cruelty are the prime factors of a successful life. Where stealing and killing are as natural a part of living as breathing is to most of us.”

The Square - Iconic Place Names From A Troubled Era
Crossmaglen, or XMG as it is known, was a place of severe hostility, isolation and a constant threat of death. Soldiers on patrol were briefed on the fact that every milk churn, gorse bush, stone wall or bale of hay could contain a bomb, while the threat of the sniper was very real.

It was all very real indeed, South Armagh or ‘Bandit Country’ as it became referred to following comments made by then Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees, from 1971 saw the deaths of 123 soldiers, 42 Police Officers and 75 civilians. It is also reported that South Armagh saw 1255 bomb attacks and 1158 shooting incidents during the period of the Troubles.

Road travel became too dangerous so movement could only be made via helicopter. Watchtowers were erected, while part of the Crossmaglen Rangers Gaelic Football ground was occupied by the army base. Soldiers who patrolled ‘Cross’ did so in fear of the Armalite and the bomb.

A Tribute 
My fascination with Ulster and the Troubles started when I made my first visit to Derry in 2005. I began to read, I began to watch archive footage, I also began to wonder whether it would be possible to pay South Armagh a visit.

As the years went by, bearing in mind most of my trips centred around football, I was of the view that I’d probably struggle to do it. To be fair, part of me as well was a little bit nervous. I’ve had zero problems in Republican areas of the North in all the times I’ve been, but South Armagh and XMG in particular, well that for me was another level.

The IRA Volunteers
A plan came together quickly though. I was all set to travel up to Derry on the Friday night for the game against Shamrock Rovers, but as is sometimes the case, the game got moved and I had to find an alternative. That alternative was the Mourne Derby between Newry City and Warrenpoint Town, and to be honest I was quite happy with that because I really liked Newry when I made my one and only previous visit, around the time of the ash cloud crisis because I recall it being touch and go as to whether I made it or not.

However, I would be in Newry at 10am, and as much as I like the City, I was going to struggle to find too much to do to fill the time, and that was when the cogs started to turn and I started to do a bit of research. The number 42 bus from Newry gets into Crossmaglen in just short of an hour, and if I caught the 11am, I would get a couple of hours in the town before the return. It was on, it was a reality, it was time to do a bit more research.

Crossmaglen Rangers
I’m not sure how many people have ever typed into Google ‘Is Crossmaglen safe for a British person’ but I did it, and to be fair, it all seemed pretty positive on the whole. Clearly don’t go around waving a Union Jack or singing God Save The Queen, but otherwise if I kept myself to myself all would be fine.

The 11am bus wasn’t especially busy as it weaved its way through the stunning countryside, with views of Slieve Gullion and the surrounding mountains dominating the landscape. We travelled through Mullaghbawn, Forkhill and Silverbridge, while at one point due to a closed road, we crossed the Irish border briefly and were in the Republic.

Crossmaglen was reached in good time, and it was pretty quiet in the famous Cardinal O’Fiaich Square where a British Military Sangar used to be located (and set on fire when a tanker sprayed paraffin over it having been moved into place by a tractor). I made my way across the Square and went to the Crossmaglen Rangers gaelic grounds, the home of one of the most successful club sides the island has ever produced. After a look at the impressive facilities, I then made my way across the top of the Square and took a walk down to the PSNI Station, which is as fortified as you will see with huge metal walls and high security features.

A Small Piece Of Great Britain Sits Behind
I did want to visit a few pubs, but not before checking out the memorials and statue in and around the Square. Republicanism is celebrated, and key players are remembered. Crossmaglen may be Northern Ireland on the map, but this is the Republic in realty.

The Cross Square Hotel was doing a decent trade with lunches, and perhaps is testimony to the times that visitors choose to stay in the town, while the Clarnagh Maid was your typical Irish pub, with plenty of craic to be had. But it was while in Murtagh’s that I got talking to the owner, and he was inquisitive as to my presence in Crossmaglen. It seems that anyone who isn’t a local is treated with an element of suspicion, for one principal reason right now, Brexit.

Journalists from all across Europe have been flooding to border towns like Cross to get soundbites, to get the real story of what a change to the border status may mean to them. Aidan Murtagh doesn’t do interviews, but as he said to me,

“We didn’t want to leave as a nation (Northern Ireland), but we have no choice. You have to remember, almost every road from this town leads to a border, and I honestly don’t know how this is going to end up.”

Aidan grew up during the Troubles and remembered it well,

“It was just how life was, you didn’t know any different. The good thing is though, many of our children have no idea what it was like, they might read about it in history books, but that time was a World away. They simply cannot comprehend Crossmaglen being as it was, they only see the now.”

With a sense of fulfillment, it was back to Newry and time to check in to my base before the big game. It was to be the first time the two clubs had met in the top flight of Irish football, and dubbed the ‘Mourne Ultimatum’, it was time to see who would get the ‘Mourne Supremacy’. The local papers were loving it with headlines as such, this was big news in the locality.

Pre-match latch lifters were taken before the walk through the centre of the City and down by the side of the River to the Showgrounds, which sits within an industrial estate that’s just off the main road to Warrenpoint itself.

Newry Showgrounds
Next to the Showgrounds is the fantastic Parc Eisler, the home of Newry Shamrocks GAA club, and also the base for Down GAA, the floodlights were on and a smattering of spectators were entering for what looked like an underage game taking place.

Newry’s story is an interesting one.  Formed as Newry Town in 1918, the club changed its name to Newry City in 2004 thanks to City status being awarded.  The club joined the Northern Irish League 
in 1983, having a successful period that culminated in European football in the late nineties, but beyond that the club suffered a decline in fortunes. Finally relegated in 2011, the club dropped into the First Division, and then following an expensive court case brought about by a former Manager, the club were issued with a winding up petition on the eve of the 2012-13 season, found themselves suspended and then ultimately, dissolved.

Away End
The majority of the players found a new club, somewhat ironically in the shape of Warrenpoint Town, hence one of the reasons how they have managed to move up four divisions in double quick time, but while the players were going down the road, Newry City AFC was being formed. Starting in the Mid-Ulster League in 2013-14, they quickly moved up the pyramid and last season they won promotion to the Premiership, a fourth promotion in five years!

So it was show time in the Showgrounds, and I would estimate a crowd of over 1,000 were present to watch it take place, possibly pushing towards 1,500. It’s a cracking ground as well, on entering the car park from the road, the clubhouse is to the right and on the night did a very brisk trade, with the Dundalk v Cork City LOI game on the television as a bonus. Dundalk is only twelve miles away.

Once through the turnstiles, to the right is an area of covered terrace that sits next to a building with a viewing gallery at the top (corporate hospitality?). The building is directly behind the goal, and then an open area leads round the far corner before some terracing runs the entire length of the pitch. A disused stand sits in the middle of it, and is something of a relic of a bygone era.

Behind the top goal is a smart new stand, with seats at the front and some flat standing to the rear, this is the designated away end which was occupied by the Warrenpoint fans, numbering a couple of hundred I would guess.

Relics Of Bygone Times - With The Lights Of Parc Eisler Behind
Moving onto the South side of the ground is a steep seated stand picking out NCFC in the blue and white seats, while next to it is a further area of quite shallow covered terracing set quite a way back from the pitch, The refreshment kiosk and a club shop then take us back to the turnstiles again.

So what about the game? To be honest it certainly didn’t live up to the hype and chances were few and far between in a tight and cagey first period, but moments after the break it was the hosts that made the breakthrough when Jimmy Walker despatched a penalty that was awarded for a clear foul.

The Kop

Newry had chances to make the game safe, but, as the game moved towards its conclusion, Warrenpoint with nothing to lose threw men forward. Corners were won as Newry dug deep but then as the game moved into stoppage time, Phillip Donnelly got his head onto a cross and tucked the ball into the bottom corner. It was pandemonium in front of the visiting fans, but silence engulfed the previously noisy home support, indeed, the constant drumming came to an abrupt halt!

So that was it, and at the final whistle we all meandered off in our own directions, I chose to make the 45 minute walk from the very South of the City to the very North where my Hotel was located. I made it well in time for a couple more beverages and a chance to reflect on a fantastic day in Newry and indeed in the notorious South Armagh.

Casual Culture